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If you have seen Tibetan art, you would be familiar with Thangka. It is a traditional Buddhist painting on a cotton or silk fabric that usually depicts a mandala, a scene, or a Buddhist deity. The most common is the Thangka painting of the wheel of Samsara or life, known as Bhavachakra, held in the hands of the wrathful God Yama. Today, the refined and elegant works of the artists of Tibet have gained popularity throughout the world. Thangka paintings are similar to Chinese scroll paintings in the sense that when not on display, they are kept rolled up and unframed and are affixed on a traditional textile background, further protected by a silk cover in front. Evidently, in Classical Tibetan, the word Thangka means “the thing that one unrolls”. Since Thangkas are delicate in nature, they must be kept in a dry place where moisture cannot affect the silk. This is why Thangkas last a long time. Thangka paintings are usually small in size, up to 50 centimeters in height, but those which are displayed in monasteries for religious purposes for a short period are extremely large in size. They illustrate elaborate and complex compositions of various deities to provide an understanding of the Tibetan religion. The paintings are typically very colorful and beautiful to look at. Thangka – The Instrumentality Of Storytelling, Meditation and Enlightenment.

Tibetan Buddhist Superfine Thangka - Shakyamuni Buddha Seated on the Six-Ornament Throne of Enlightenment

  • Thangkas are hung on the walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries for decoration and prayer purposes.
  • They depict the pictures of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva in a meditating state which the Buddhist Vajrayana devotees use as a guide to increase the absorption in their meditation practices.
  • Since these paintings portray the life of the Buddha and various revered deities in Buddhism and some scenes from their life, they serve as an important tool for preaching their principles to others.

History of Thangkas

The Thangkas developed their ethnic characteristics and features from the early Buddhist paintings which were mostly done on the walls of temples and monasteries. Many of the murals had Tibetan inscriptions and incorporated many elements from Han Chinese paintings and some elements reflecting Indian styles. These emphasized more on the landscape background. Some traditional Buddhist paintings survive even today in a few sites such as the Ajanta Caves in India and the Mogao Caves in China. It is from this time that Thangka paintings were developed from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings.

The colossal Thangkas made on cloth can be dated back to the 11th century. In some old Thangkas, inscriptions in Tibetan can be found on their back usually depicting the mantra of the deity portrayed. Rarely any painting had the signature of the commissioner or the artist. The artists of these paintings were monks rather than famous artists. The commissioner provided them with valuable materials and they were given compensation which was by tradition regarded as a gift rather than a fee. They were painted in the areas where Tibetan Buddhism flourished which included Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Northeast China, Lahaul and Spiti District in Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, and some parts of Russia. Sacred Buddhist Painting - The Tibetan Thangka.

Special features of Thangka Paintings

Although Thangka paintings are purely spiritual art that is considered Buddhist iconography and is displayed in Buddhist temples for religious purposes, several museums around the world have dedicated sections to these paintings. This brilliant art indeed has a far-reaching influence and has varied varieties and features that make it stand out from other traditional illustrative paintings.

  • Thangka paintings have compositions that show a central figure flanked by other smaller figures seated on small clouds or surrounded by flaming halos.
  • The majorities of the compositions are complex and highly geometric and are based on line drawing.
  • Some of the Thangkas are coated with 24 Carat Gold which gives an aesthetic look to the painting, making it a bit expensive to buy.
  • The drawing of figures in Thangka paintings is based on the Nepalese style, the background landscapes and sceneries are based on the Chinese style, while the ornaments and costumes are based on the Indian style.
  • The landscapes, figures, figures, etc in the embroidered Thangkas are embroidered with colored silk.
  • Thangkas are either painted by Buddhist monks or by laymen under the supervision of lamas. But these paintings hold no religious or spiritual value until they are consecrated by Lamas. 

Medicine Buddha Thangka (Brocadeless Thangka)

Types of Thangka paintings

Thangka painting’s features are distinct, showcasing the miraculous culture of Tibetan Buddhism. These are mostly rectangular in shape and their size ranges from small, to typically larger, to extremely large. Based on the technique and material, Thangkas can be divided into several categories such as:

● Cotton or Silk Thangkas are typically painted on either loosely woven cotton or silk. The paint consists of both mineral and organic pigments in a water-soluble medium of animal glue. 

 Applique It is a needlework technique using colorful threads in which smaller pieces of fabric are sewn by hand stitching or machine onto a larger piece of contrasting color to form a picture. This is generally done on silk and is usually used to make giant Thangka paintings that are designed for festivals to be displayed in Buddhist temples.

 Painting in colors This is the most common type of Thangka painting.

 Black Background With gold lines on a black background.

 Gold Background Real gold leaf is used to create a Gold background that provides a luxurious appearance. It is generally used to make paintings of fully enlightened Buddhas.

 Red Background Gold line on a vermilion background.

The material used in making these masterpieces has evolved throughout the years but the methodology remains constant. Creating a Thangka painting is not an easy task. It requires a great amount of skill and knowledge as every single feature represents an aspect of the principles of Buddhism. The Life of Buddha and the Art of Narration in Buddhist Thangka Paintings.


Thangka is a piece of Traditional Tibetan Buddhist art that showcases or portrays the teachings and life of the Buddha. The process of making a Thangka is complex. Behind the beautiful creation of the painting, there goes perfect craftsmanship and a deep understanding of the symbols, figures, and deities to capture the spirit of it. Depending on the size and nature of the Thangka painting, the artists take between one month and four months to complete it. One may find these paintings hung on the walls of Buddhist temples. The purpose of these visual representations is to invoke the qualities of the enlightened Bodhisattva and the Buddha in those who offer their prayers before them. They alrve as an important tool for personal meditation purposes or to instruct monastic students. Regarded as the treasure of the Tibetan people, Thangka art is renowned throughout the world.

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